A The Great Cast Iron Debate

By Mark Tully (with help from Rose Franceschini, Jane Sterner and Julie Hudson)

Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that something as mundane as the proper care and seasoning of cast iron would have generated such heated debate. I have received several phone calls, letters and e-mail messages since my article Caring for Cast Iron, it's a Guy Thing in the Winter edition of the NWTA SPY. First of all, it would appear that many folks completely missed the tongue-in-cheek nature of the first few paragraphs. Any good headline will command attention, and from some of the responses I received it is obvious that the one I used for my article did just that!
I would also like to respectfully point out that sheet tin, straight-sided kettles were by far the most common cooking utensil employed by 18th-century armies. (There are half a dozen people that I know of currently doing research on this topic--expect an in-depth article sometime soon). Cast iron--whether pots, skillets, griddles or Dutch ovens--rarely show up on returns or supply receipts of the period, and very few iron pot fragments have been uncovered at military campsites. Remember, each mess was expected to CARRY their cooking gear on the march, and you can bet that a heavy piece of iron would be the first thing to have been left behind. In fact, Joseph Plumb Martin writes of throwing away his mess' cookware because no one wanted to carry it. He further states that most of the soldiers in his division had cast off their "iron bondage" (in this case sheet iron camp kettles) and the sides of the road they marched along was littered with them. But, the authenticity issue aside, here are just two of the several responses I received regarding the seasoning and use of cast iron.

Going to Pot:

Lend Me a Historical Perspective to an Iron-Clad Problem

By Rose Franceschini

This method of use of iron cookware comes in part from a Pennsylvania Dutch (that's Dutch, not German) family which has used iron cookware for generations. While each cook will follow his [or her] own set of rules, these are presented for discussion:

  • A new pot out of the box MUST be seasoned first as the manufacturer will mention in the accompanying papers.
  • Seasoning: has already been well-covered in previous articles.
  • Clean up: Alas, this subject cannot be approached without shots being fired--I will try to be delicate! All cast iron users of my acquaintance wash the pot in soap and water, preferably without soaking. The pot is then hung to dry if it is well-seasoned. If not it takes SECONDS to put the pot over a low fire. After it has dried a bit of oil or lard is added and cooked further.
  • Frequent use—and washing—of the pot prevents rust.
  • Do NOT leave a hot iron pot COVERED to cool—moisture may develop rust if the pot is not well-seasoned.

    Recovering a rusted pot

    Junk yard and flea market finds can be made useable. I this part of the territory (Missouri) iron cookware is readily available at flea markets. Here’s how to rescue a treasure that has rusted:

  • Fill pot with water.
  • Boil
  • Dump water; add a drop of cool water, Bon Ami cleanser (do NOT use a cleanser with additives) and scrub it hard with a steel scrubbing muffin (like the plastic ones but of steel).
  • Repeat until rust is gone.
  • Season as usual.
  • Season repeatedly during use until a "patina" of glossy black forms.
  • If pot is very rusted, use a power drill and stone grinders or wire brushes. Then use steel muffin after worst of rust is removed.

    The above has been field tested by myself--I recovered three pots this way and they are a true source of cooking enjoyment. Again, a pot that is PROPERLY SEASONED and one that is FREQUENTLY USED AND WASHED will be ready without further seasoning. The emphasis is on FREQUENCY. I've used cast iron pots myself for many years and have found that it is NOT the washing or not washing of the pot which necessitates seasoning, but rather the frequency of use. Store pots used rarely with care: season pot well and give it a good cooking with lard. Wipe pot out to remove excess grease. Store uncovered in a DRY place. O.K., I submit. In a field emergency, if a pot is wiped out and heated well before using it should be safe, but my washed pots have a beautiful glossy patina and make me feel safe! Each to his own.

    Cast Iron--

    A "Guy" or a "Cook" Thing?

    By Jane Sterner and Julie Hudson

    Thanks for the informative article on the care & feeding of cast iron. We must, however take exception to the statement "It's a Guy Thing" when actually it should read "It's a Cook Thing." With that one statement, you have just unwittingly offended around one-third of your membership and they, for the most part, being the ones responsible for feeding the other two-thirds.*

    Seeing a man actually cooking, much less cleaning cookware at a reenactment, is truly a rare thing in our experience. Those of you who cook, please don’t be offended, we know that you are out there! However, it is doubtful that a man would actually have to "wrestle" the cookware away from his spouse for the purpose of cleaning it. If you want to see some well cared for cast iron, drop by Worthington's Co.'s fire just after meal time. You will there gaze upon well cared for, black, greasily seasoned cast iron to your heart's delight. No offense to their men, but those ladies do it all themselves, and that after cooking a full meal for the entire regiment & doing the dishes, all before dusk.

    Please feel free to stop by camp for a nice juicy serving of crow--cooked in well seasoned cast iron, of course.

    * The actual ratio of soldiers to women and children in the NWTA is 1 to1.56, so in reality I have offended more than half of the membership -- ed.